Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Golden Boys is a near-perfect evocation of growing up in the Australian suburbs.

Sonya Hartnett’s new novel, Golden Boys, doesn’t set itself in a specific time, but it quickly becomes obvious we’re in late 70s, early 80s Australian suburbia. The tell-tale signs are in the objects that populate the story: a BMX bike, a cassette tape being flipped at a barbeque. This is a book rich in the texture of childhood toys, used to create an instantly recognisable urban landscape. Golden Boys plumbs the suburban subsconscious, creating an unsettling, dream-like atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty.

The Jensons have moved into a new suburb. The father, Rex, is a happy-go-lucky dentist. He likes treating his two boys, Colt and Bastian, to games and puzzles. He’s an excellent provider for his family. His boys have all the toys they could possibly want. His wife, the somewhat amusingly named Tabby, seems to float on a cloud of suburban comfort. But underneath all this perfection there is a nagging sense of something not being quite right. In the opening chapter, when Rex makes the boys guess what colour the new BMX bike is that he’s bought them, the game turns almost into a mania for their father.

As the new kids on the block, the Jenson boys meet the Kiley family, who live just up the street. This family has more overt problems. The father, Joe, is a printer with a drinking problem. His marriage, to his wife Elizabeth, is a loveless and sometimes violent one. Their children, Freya, Declan, Syd, Dorrie, Marigold and Peter, try to cope with family life as best they can. It’s Freya, almost 13-years-old, who struggles the most. She wonders why their parents ever bothered marrying and feels most keenly what a hopeless failure her family is. When Freya meets Rex Jenson, she marvels at how wonderfully perfect he seems. He’s an adult she can talk to about her problems. But when she rushes to Rex for help to resolve a  domestic crisis, she feels let down by him. Her one light of hope in this suburban wasteland is suddenly extinguished. The idol she built Rex Jenson up into seems to be a false one.

Golden Boys is a near-perfect evocation of growing up in the Australian suburbs. Sonya Harntett describes the flipside of the Australian dream: envy driven by our commercial culture, the sharp limits to community feeling, the isolation children feel from adults, violence within marriages, the nagging sense of personal failure, the very prison of the mind and spirit that the suburbs seem to create. Reading Golden Boys I marvelled at how so true the novel was to life. It is a slice of real life.

Golden Boys, by Sonya Hartnett. Published by Hamish Hamilton. ISBN: 9781926428611 RRP: $29.99

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